Friday, March 28, 2008

Riding the Border Wall to Reelection

By Scott Nicol

Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) likes to brag about the wall that he built on the border. It took a decade and $39 million to build the first 9 miles of border wall south of San Diego, and its impact was minimal at best, but it made Rep. Hunter proud. In the weeks just before the 2006 mid-term elections, politicians desperate to look tough on national security and hang on to their seats jumped on Hunter’s bandwagon and rushed through the Secure Fence Act, which mandated “[at] least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors” along 700-plus miles of the U.S. - Mexico border. Though no walls would be built along the Canadian border and the coasts would likewise be unaffected, the Act’s pie-in-the-sky goal was “to achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States."

The politicians who voted for the Secure Fence Act were primarily interested in the symbolism of a wall, not its substance, otherwise they would have checked to see if the original San Diego border wall had worked. In fact, it hadn’t. The Congressional Research Service concluded that the border wall “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border in San Diego.” Recent Border Patrol statistics bear this conclusion out. Fiscal year 2007 saw a 7% increase in illegal crossings in the San Diego sector. In contrast, during the same year crossings border-wide dropped by 20%. The Del Rio sector, which like the rest of Texas east of El Paso has never had a wall, saw a 46% drop. The unwalled Rio Grande Valley saw a 34% drop, bringing illegal entries in that sector to a 15 year low. Even Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recognized the border wall’s ineffectiveness, saying, “I think the fence has come to assume a certain kind of symbolic significance which should not obscure the fact that it is a much more complicated problem than putting up a fence which someone can climb over with a ladder or tunnel under with a shovel.”

Unfortunately, the border wall is not just a symbol or a line drawn on a map. It is a physical structure that will tear through private homes and property, municipalities, parks and wildlife refuges, and a college campus. While its benefits may be illusory, the damage that it causes will be real. Recognizing this fact, in December Representative Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) inserted language into the Omnibus Spending Bill that gave DHS Secretary Chertoff the flexibility to determine where walls would be built, as well as how many miles of wall would be built, based on his determination of the Border Patrol’s operational needs. The bill also requires Chertoff to consult with property owners, local governments, Indian tribes, and the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to “minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce, and quality of life for the communities and residents located near the sites at which such fencing is to be constructed.”

While this would seem like the first small step towards a rational border policy, it enraged right wing politicians who screamed that the border wall had been “gutted.” Representative Hunter, whose failed bid for the White House had been based on little more than his claim to have built the California border wall, quickly introduced the Reinstatement of the Secure Fence Act. It repeals the Omnibus Spending Bill’s flexibility language, and requires that 700 miles of double layered border wall be built within 6 months. The nearly 300 miles of border walls and vehicle barriers that have already been built would not count towards that number, and the funds necessary to build the new walls would be immediately appropriated. The bill currently has 19 cosponsors. Clearly, Representative Hunter realized that the border wall is his only claim to fame, and that during his presidential bid the media ignored him if he talked about anything else. Howling that our national security is being put at risk gets him media attention and brings in donations to his reelection campaign and his Peace Through Strength Political Action Committee.

Duncan Hunter is not alone in exploiting fears of an immigrant invasion and terrorists crossing our southern border to fill his campaign coffers. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced the Complete the Fence Act, which does much the same things as Hunter’s bill. In a letter announcing the bill DeMint also heralded “the launch of a new grassroots website called”. Of course, the “grassroots” website has a link to on its banner, a video clip of Jim DeMint on the home page, and declares at the bottom of the home page “Paid for by Jim DeMint For Senate, Inc.” It is little more than a campaign ad. In fact, the letter announcing the Complete the Fence Act ends with a heartfelt P.S., “I will continue to lead the charge for conservative reforms, but I need your help. Please consider making a contribution to my campaign.”

Not to be left out, Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) has introduced the Fence by Date Certain Act, which contains the same provisions as the Reinstatement of the Secure Fence Act. Congressman Jones is best known for his efforts to change the names of French Fries and French Toast to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast in the congressional cafeteria to punish France for refusing to support the invasion of Iraq. His latest valiant effort to defend our national honor already has 42 cosponsors, including 14 of the 19 cosponsors of Hunter’s nearly identical bill. Why introduce a third bill that mimics two existing bills? Because actually building a wall is not the point. Getting credit for demanding its construction is.

Politics is a game that exists outside of the real world. In the real world the border wall is an expensive failure, but it sure looks great behind the candidate in a campaign ad. If demolished homes and bulldozed wildlife refuges clash with the rhetoric of protecting the homeland, they are simply ignored. When the Border Patrol says it only takes 5 minutes to get past the border wall, Representative Jones calls it “a foolproof barrier on the border.” While the General Accounting Office says that the wall has caused the number of crossers who die in the desert to double, Representative Hunter says “the fence works” in his ads. Reality is irrelevant. The only real-world consequences that matter to Hunter, DeMint, and Jones are campaign contributions in their pockets and votes in the next election.


Massimo Parizzi said...

I’m the editor of an Italian magazine published in English too as “Here-Notes from the Present” ( Next issue of it will be titled “Borders”, and I’d like to publish, as cover pictures, a photo of the border wall USA-Mexico like those you published here. May I ask you to be so kind and send me some, please? Our magazine comes out on paper, so I'd need them in the best possible definition. Excuse me for bothering you with my request, thank you very much, and best regards
Massimo Parizzi

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